Animal hoarding called mental health concern

December 10, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Animal control officers used to call them "collectors."

The name, however, lost its lightness as more and more houses were found knee-deep in garbage, urine and feces, and crawling with cats, dogs or other animals. Psychologists started weighing in on what largely had been seen as an animal control issue, and brought to light a new mental health concern: Animal hoarding.

Some Washington County officials interviewed for this story said they see a handful of such cases each year, but believe there are more out there than are reported.

Dr. Gary Patronek, founder of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, said an animal hoarder generally is defined as a person who "has more than the typical number of animals," but who is unable to provide even minimal standards of care for those animals.


A hoarder also denies that they can't care for those pets, Patronek said.

"The bottom line, what we do know, is that this is not about legitimate sheltering," he said.

Often, animal hoarders begin with good intentions, but their efforts shift into obsessive, compulsive and addictive behavior, Patronek said.

"They need to acquire and control animals," he said. "These animals provide these people with a fix. The acquisition of the animals gives them a kick."

Patronek said that frequently, the behavior stems from an issue with attachment. The person might have been in an abusive or neglectful relationship in the past, he said.

"This is a behavior that dominates their life, supersedes their human relationships ... the animal hoarding is what drives them," Patronek said.

Unfortunately, there is little treatment for animal hoarders, he said.

Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane Society of Washington County, said jail time doesn't cure them. Miller said he is reluctant to call someone an animal hoarder because he said it is a psychological diagnosis.

"We've learned over the years that if you take Ms. Jones and you put her in jail for 60 days, she comes out and she does it again," Miller said.

On the job

Miller has seen his share of animal "collectors" in his years working throughout the United States as an animal control officer.

He once came upon a woman who kept about 30 cats under a shell on the back of her pickup truck, he said. The woman, who had been evicted from her home, was told she couldn't keep her cats in the truck, but wasn't punished otherwise, he said.

The cats were "almost all up to date on their shots," and the conditions of the truck were good, making it difficult to press any charges against her, Miller said.

"The laws are not set up to prosecute people for a large number of animals," he said.

"In hoarding cases, oftentimes the animals are not in bad shape. Animal cruelty charges can't be brought," Miller said. "They feed them, they take care of them, but they don't clean up after them."

Miller said that he has been in houses piled 3 feet high with animal feces, garbage and urine. He's had to walk on furniture to navigate rooms.

When a group of cats housed in padlocked cages was brought to the shelter where Miller worked, urine poured from their cages. The cats had no hair on their legs, he said.

Dead animals also have been found, sometimes wrapped and kept in a freezer, sometimes lying where they died, he said. The smell of ammonia has at times been overpowering.

"You know before you get to those houses that you have an issue if you can smell it from the street or sidewalk," Miller said.

A multiagency issue

John Lestitian, chief code compliance officer for the City of Hagerstown, said workers in his office sometimes are the first to pick up on a hoarding issue.

Once, a code compliance officer who noticed piled garbage outside a house was able to talk his way inside the house and evaluate the conditions, he said.

Lestitian said code compliance officers get administrative inspection warrants to search a house for such violations. Although no pet hoarding cases in Hagerstown have been brought to court for building code violations, Lestitian said the conditions of some houses could warrant up to $10,000 in fines.

Trash alone piled in homes is a serious fire hazard, he said.

Floorboards often are rotted from the weight and effects of animal waste, Lestitian said. Usually, other areas of the house also are neglected, he said.

Some houses can be rehabilitated, but often need new flooring and other major repairs, Lestitian said, showing photographs of living rooms and hallways flooded with debris.

"When we have cases that rise to this level, it shifts to, we need to make sure this person gets the help that they need," Lestitian said.

Social workers are called when the sanitary condition of the home jeopardizes the health of its occupant, said John Kenney, Washington County Department of Social Services program manager of adult services.

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